jakub | May 14, 2023

AMERICAN THEATRE | Moisés Kaufman Plays With Form


Moisés Kaufman. (Photo by Jenny Anderson)

The multitalented playwright-director Moisés Kaufman is the artistic director and founder of New York City’s Tectonic Theater Project; he is also a co-founder of Miami New Drama at the Colony Theatre in Miami Beach. Beyond earning nominations for Drama Desk, Tony, and Emmy awards, he is a winner of an Obie and a Lucille Lortel Award.

Born and raised in Caracas, Venezuela, Kaufman earned an undergraduate business degree from Universidad Metropolitana in Venezuela, where he acted and studied theatre, before moving to the U.S. in 1987 and studying theatre at New York University. He received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2002, and in 2016, President Barack Obama awarded him the National Medal of Arts.

The Laramie Project (2000), which he created with the Tectonic Theater, brought him and the company international acclaim. Other major credits include two of his own plays (1997’s Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde, a hit Off-Broadway, and 2007’s 33 Variations on Broadway), as well as stints as director of Rajiv Joseph’s Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo in 2011, Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song, and Doug Wright’s I Am My Own Wife. He has worked with many legendary actors, from Robin Williams to Jane Fonda. The last play he directed on Broadway was the musical Paradise Square (2022).

Mr. Kaufman is always exceptionally busy, but he took time out of a busy schedule to have a Zoom conversation with me last year about his career as a theatre artist and an art activist. His newest work with Tectonic, Here There Are Blueberries, had just been staged at La Jolla Playhouse; it is currently running at Washington, D.C.’s Shakespeare Theatre, and will be part of New York Theatre Workshop’s 2023-24 season.


NATHANIEL G. NESMITH: You were born and raised in an Orthodox Jewish family in Caracas. Can you tell me a bit about your upbringing, your family, and what your parents did in Venezuela? 

MOISÉS KAUFMAN: My father was a Holocaust survivor. He was born in Romania, and during the war he hid in the basement of a building, and when the war was over, he fled to Venezuela with his brother and his mother. At that time, it was very hard to get a visa for the United States, but it was easier to get a visa for Venezuela. He also had relatives down there, so they went to Venezuela. It’s the immigrant story: They arrived in Venezuela without any money, and my father was at that time, I think 20, and he started working in the back of a deli. He slowly went to university, became an accountant, and learned the trade. Then he opened his own supermarket, and then he owned a few other supermarkets. He was very much a self-made man. 

My mother: Her parents were Ukrainian and had arrived in Venezuela in the 1930s. It was a generation before my father’s, also escaping the war. My mother was born in Venezuela, and she met and married my father. The experience was interesting, because I was born in the very Orthodox Jewish community in a very Catholic and very machista country, and by the time I was 11 I realized that I was gay. Every single cultural artifact around me told me that what I was was diseased, sick, and perverted. From very early on I realized that I was the other, because I was a Jew in a Catholic country. But then, even within the Jewish community, I was the other, because I was gay in a mostly straight environment. 

When you were a student at New York University, Arthur Bartow was then the dean at NYU’S Tisch School of the Arts. He is the one who advised you to start your own theatre company, which in turn led the birth of the Tectonic Theater Project. As an emerging theatre artist, what other important advice did you get from theatre artists that you respected?

Before I arrived in New York, I went to college in Venezuela and was a member of a theatre company there. After I left NYU, Arthur said, “Go, make your own work.” I think one mistake young artists make is that they try to fight to get opportunities that other people are going to give them. The best advice I got was, “If you don’t find those opportunities, make your own opportunities.” There are basements all over the city. If there’s a basement, there’s a play. You can get a couple of actors together and start doing the work. That’s the most important advice: Do the work. Yes, it’s important to network. Yes, it’s important to find an agent. Yes, it’s important to find other people who will hire you. But it’s also important for you not to wait for that and to do your own work.

After you completed your education at NYU, you and Jeff LaHoste founded Tectonic Theater Project in 1991. Where did the funding come from? 

At the beginning we did what a lot of theatre companies do: We would do bake sales, and we would ask for donations. The first play Tectonic Theater Project ever did, we did it in a synagogue. We made a deal with the owner of the synagogue that we would clean the synagogue for three weeks if they gave us three weeks of performance. And they did. We worked for three weeks cleaning the space so that we could perform there. The experiences of those first five years of the company were exuberant and exhilarating, but also terrifying and very depressing. Many times there would be fewer people in the audience than there were people onstage. We once did a play with two actors, and there was only one person in the audience.

It was hard. We dealt with a lot of the same things that many new companies deal with, which is, people don’t know about you, especially in New York. In New York, there are 200 shows every night. It took us a long time to find our audience; it was a slow process. What happened was we did Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde—that was when we broke through. People saw the work, and they loved the work. Things changed from there.

Let’s stay with 1991. On Nov. 22, 1991, a day after your 28th birthday, Mel Gussow did not give you a birthday present with his NY Times review of Women in Beckett, which you directed at Theatre for the New City. What did such a review mean to you at that time?

That production of Women in Beckett was the first production of Tectonic Theater Project. Look, it was devastating. The first legit review of the company, and he didn’t like our production. Yes, I did take a lot of liberties with Beckett. One of the things that was important for me was the reason I created the Tectonic Theater Project: because I was bored with a lot of the theatre I was seeing around me. It was all realism and naturalism. You went to the theatre, and you felt like you were in the studio for a sitcom. I thought sitcoms are better done for television and film. What are the theatrical languages we can explore in the theatre? What is it that we can do in the theatre that those other mediums cannot do? During the first five years of the company, we did our own work, but we also staged playwrights who were dealing with those same questions. So we did Beckett and we did Brecht and we did Sophie Treadwell, an American Expressionist playwright. We did young American playwrights who were screwing with form. When we did Beckett, we were having a conversation about form with Beckett, and Mr. Gussow didn’t care for the liberties that we took. In a way it was devastating—and in a way it was kind of liberating. We weren’t surprised, because the work we were doing was daring and pushing the boundaries of what was possible on the stage.

Years later, of course, Ben Brantley at the Times gave you a major thumbs up for Gross Indecency, your first produced play as a playwright and director. The play also won the Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding Off-Broadway Play. Were you prepared for the type of success the play garnered?

No one’s ever prepared for that kind of success. For me, what was exciting was that for the first five years of the company, we were doing other people’s plays. And then I said, If we’re really being daring about theatrical form, it’s not enough to do other people’s plays; we have to write our own plays. So I decided to write this play, the first play I ever wrote, and it became a huge hit. It ran for two years in New York, and then it became one of the most performed plays in America that season. That was very encouraging. As a theatre company, we weren’t prepared. The way that we took reservations was that we had an answering machine in my apartment, and then the answering machine blew up the next day because that review was such a rave that everybody wanted tickets.

The world premiere production of “The Laramie Project” at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts in 2000. (Photo by Terry Shapiro)

The Laramie Project, which you also directed, explored Matthew Shepard’s brutal torture and murder in 1998. His death became a very important cultural and theatrical benchmark, and the play has been extraordinarily successful. Not only did it have many professional productions, but it had many productions in colleges, high schools, and community theatres. If you had to travel this journey again to bring about The Laramie Project, what would you do differently?

Nothing. As you said, The Laramie Project is still one of the most performed plays in America, and so I think, regardless of what one thinks of it as a play, it did exactly what it needed to do.

What is it about The Laramie Project that make it still so relevant, do you think?

I think there are two things: One is the subject matter of the play. Unfortunately, we’re still in the middle of that conversation about gender identity and sexual orientation and rights, and what is the social contract that we live under as Americans. But I think the other thing that was interesting was the form of the play, because it’s not only a play that uses the language of the people of Laramie; it is a play that speaks of a theatre company going to Laramie to create a play. You know how I said before that for me, I created the Tectonic Theater Project to explore theatrical language and theatrical forms; I was bored with the kind of theatre I was seeing. I was really interested in creating a laboratory where I could ask: What is theatrical? How does the theatre speak? And if you look at our plays, whether it was Gross Indecency or The Laramie Project or 33 Variations or, more recently, Here There Are Blueberries, each play is exploring a different form. Gross Indecency was using trial transcripts to explore history. The Laramie Project was done by conducting interviews, having the theatre company go to Laramie, travel to Laramie, spend a year conducting interviews with the people of the town. 33 Variations was written using Beethoven’s musical sketches. Here There Are Blueberries was created using photographs of the Third Reich. So there’s a real desire to write plays that really question what is theatrical.

You made your directing debut on Broadway with Doug Wright’s I Am My Own Wife, a play that dealt with a gay transvestite’s survival in Nazi Germany and Soviet East Berlin. What was unique about that experience?

Doing that kind of work on Broadway was a very important milestone in my career, because I Am My Own Wife is very much in the world of Gross Indecency and The Laramie Project. It uses found text as a source and then constructs a narrative around it. So to have that kind of work done on Broadway was a gigantic moment, a step forward, because I felt like, “Oh, we are now mainstream if this kind of work can happen on Broadway.”

In 2009, you directed your own play on Broadway, 33 Variations, which starred Jane Fonda as a musicologist obsessed with Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations. What can you share about that experience, and about directing Fonda, who hadn’t been onstage since 1963?

Again, that was another milestone for me, because it was the first play I had written that made it to Broadway. You know, there’s something terrifying and wonderful about having your play done there. Jane Fonda is a magnificent actor, but also a magnificent human being. I just really loved her and loved working with her. And, as you said, she hadn’t done theatre in 50 years. But she had such craft, such beauty, and such ability to do the work. It was really good.

In 2010 you staged the opera Puss in Boots (El Gato Con Botas) at the New Victory Theatre. This was Spanish composer Xavier Montsalvatge’s 1947 one-act chamber opera, but in your version you combined puppeteers and human actors. At the time you were quoted as saying, “I’ve never been more scared in my life.”  What scared you about this project?

I took on an opera that’s usually performed by humans and had it performed by puppets. The puppets were created by one of the most famous international puppet theatre companies, Blind Summit. It was really joyous, really wonderful—but it was just very scary. Again, it was another formal experiment. As you can see, there is a theme emerging in this interview, which is, “tectonic” means the art and science of structure. I’m interested in how things are built, and in what forms you can use on the stage to create new theatrical experiences. For me, doing Puss in Boots with puppets in an opera was part of that formal exploration.

In 2011, you directed Rajiv Joseph’s Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo on Broadway. What can you share about that experience, including working with Robin Williams?

We all know he was a brilliant actor. He was also a brilliant man. The thing I remember the most about that experience is that there were seven actors in that cast, he and six actors, who had never been on Broadway. They were young people starting their lives, and every day he would go out to lunch with the actors. He was so humble.

Elizabeth Stahlmann in “Here There Are Blueberries” at La Jolla Playhouse. (Photo by Rich Soublet II)

Here There Are Blueberries was created in collaboration with Miami New Drama. You conceived, wrote, and directed it, in collaboration with Amanda Gronich and Barbara Pitts McAdams from Tectonic Theater Project. The play explores an album of World War II photographs that was received at the Holocaust Memorial Museum. The play uses first-person accounts, interviews, and historical artifacts to reveal things about the Holocaust. What more can you share about this production?

It was very scary, because we were using photographs taken during the World War about the Nazis in a concentration camp; I was interested in formally asking whether the photographs could carry part of the narrative, and they did. That was very interesting.

Theatre is a collaborative art form. But as a director, how you know when the time for collaboration is over, and it’s time for the big decisions to be made by the main person holding the reins?

It’s a very organic process. With Tectonic Theater Project, we always say that we are a collective because we collaborate in creating the play. But in every project that the Tectonic Theater Project has ever done, there’s always one author. When we did Uncommon Sense, Andy Paris was the one who was, as you say, holding the reins. He was the one who was making the decisions about the text.

Your body of work has had major impact in the U.S. and abroad. What is it that you feel you have not yet done?

I sometimes feel that I would like to achieve in film what I have achieved in theatre. I think that I and the artists of the Tectonic Theater Project have been successful in, if not changing the paradigm, at least shifting the paradigm of how theatre is made in America, and what kind of plays theatre can create. It would be great to be able to do that in film.

In 2016, you were awarded the National Medal of Arts and Humanities by President Barack Obama. You were the first Venezuelan to receive this award. What did all of this mean to you?

It was a wonderful moment of recognition. Awards in the theatre are usually for one play, until you become very old, and you get the lifetime achievement award. I am not that old; I was 53 when I got this award. So it didn’t feel like a lifetime achievement award, and yet it felt like a recognition of a lifetime of work. So that was really wonderful.

Correct me if I am wrong, but you said that the work that interests you most is work that explores the connection between the personal and the political. If this is true, will you expand on that premise?

I think that every interaction between human beings occurs in a political context. I think that, for theatre to fully realize its potential, it must take that into account.

You have referred to yourself as an “activist in art.” Would you expand on that premise and its connection to your works as a playwright and director?

Every time that you share a story with the world you become an activist, because your story is either reinforcing or questioning the status quo. And so I think that it’s important for artists to be aware of that power that we have.

You said you are Venezuelan, Jewish, gay, Latino, playwright, director. Spanish is your first language—you have a lot there. Anything I am leaving out?

No, I think that’s plenty. I am often surprised that all of the plays that I have written, I have written in English, which is not my mother tongue. I think all theatre in a way is an act of translation for me.

I know this is a difficult question, but if you had to pick one of your talents, would you want to be known as a director or as a playwright?

I want to be known as a theatremaker.

You have suggested that America is the place to fulfill one’s dreams. Have you fulfilled your dreams?

It depends on the day when you ask me.

Nathaniel G. Nesmith (he/him) holds an MFA in playwriting and a Ph.D. in theatre from Columbia University.

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